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Soldier documents experience in Afghanistan in tintype photographs

May 25, 2014 at 2:16 PM EDT
Tintypes of colleagues taken in Afghanistan by Ed Drew

California airman Ed Drew’s job as a gunner on combat search-and-rescue helicopters is one of the most dangerous in the military.

When he got word he was heading to Afghanistan last spring, Drew, who’s also a photographer, was inspired to make something lasting while he was there — in case he didn’t return.

Little did he know that by reviving a long lost art he would end up making history.

Our story, narrated by Scott Shafer, was produced by our partners at KQED San Francisco.

ED DREW: When I grew up my life wasn’t incredibly easy, my mother worked all the time, my real father was out of the picture.

I really had to learn on my own how to hold myself up. Photography is one of those things that I used as a vehicle for self-expression ‘cause I felt in my heart that I was an artist.

SCOTT SHAFER: Working out of a makeshift darkroom, using highly reactive chemicals, metal plates and a large format camera… artist Ed Drew is putting his own spin on a 19th century art form.

ED DREW: I like tintypes because it’s not just something simple … you have to set it up and you have to be really physical with it, you can’t just click.

You’re basically making a photo on a piece of metal. You’re exposing it, developing it and fixing it all right then and there.

Civil War era tintypes

Civil War era tintypes

SCOTT SHAFER: Tintype portraits reached the height of their popularity during the American Civil War. Inexpensive, durable and relatively simple to make, tintypes were the first portraits available to the masses, including hundreds of soldiers headed off to battle.

ED DREW: These images of soldiers, sometimes these are the last images that their friends and families would ever see of these individuals alive.

SCOTT SHAFER: Ed is no stranger to the risks of combat. He’s served in the military since he was 18 years old, and is currently an aerial gunner on combat search and rescue missions for the California Air National Guard.

When he was deployed to Afghanistan last spring, he brought his camera along.

ED DREW: The whole idea to do tintypes came from the fact that I was going to Afghanistan and I wanted to record the people who I worked with in the most humanistic way possible.

I really wanted to focus on this brotherhood I belong to, these combat rescue individuals

I would do tintypes in between missions, sometimes while I was doing tintype I would get called on a mission so I would literally have to drop everything and immediately sprint out to the aircraft to do my job.

SCOTT SHAFER: Drew’s tintypes were the first to be made in a combat zone since the Civil War.

Tintypes of colleagues taken in Afghanistan by Ed Drew

Tintypes of colleagues taken in Afghanistan by Ed Drew

ED DREW: This is my co-pilot…My tintypes for Afghanistan were about the timelessness of war how it’s followed us since civilization began and it will continue to follow us. My purpose is not to glorify anything it’s to celebrate people because we’re all essentially just human.

ED DREW: When I came back from my deployment, I was a little frustrated because I had purpose over there. I got back and I kinda had to fill that void. How I did that was I had this very specific idea that I was going to use my art to show the beauty of people.

I wonder if the hoe would be a better tool.

SCOTT SHAFER: Now Drew is working with at-risk youth at the Garden Project in San Bruno.

CATHRINE SNEED: Jess, I got a special job for you.

SCOTT SHAFER: Cathrine Sneed directs the program. Sneed’s students learn job and life skills through organic farming. The vegetables they harvest feed thousands of needy San Franciscans every year.

CATHRINE SNEED: The young people that work with us every day are the people who live in areas in the city where there’s a lot of crime, a lot of poverty. They managed to overcome all of that; they are understanding that they have a future

ED DREW: Like right about there. Yeah, that’s perfect.

The reason I chose these young adults is because they’re making something of themselves. They are going to college but they are also earning money here.

SCOTT SHAFER: Drew hopes by making these portraits he can help shatter negative stereotypes that often follow young men of color.

Ed Drew taking a tintype photo at The Garden Project in San Bruno, Calif.

Ed Drew taking a tintype photo at The Garden Project in San Bruno, Calif.

ED DREW: Hey, you like it?


ED DREW: Good, good, I’m glad.

CATHRINE SNEED: The kind of photography that Ed is doing with us is particularly meaningful because it has that historical reference. After the experience of slavery many folks have said that oh, gardening isn’t for me. And I think that Ed’s taking pictures of us, using this older way, it’s come full circle.

The garden is now a place that can uplift and not just hold you down, and hopefully his pictures can depict that in a way that touches people to help them to see it.

ED DREW: I think the imperfections of tintypes is what I really enjoy… and I think it’s a great analogy for life, life is not perfect whether they have a little speck on them or a little streak of silver that just kind of went awry, you accept the image just like you accept the person.